Amor Towles’ first novel Rules of Civility, published in 2011, was a New York Times bestseller and named by the Wall Street Journal as one of the best books of the year. In 2012 he gave up his investment banking job to become a writer full-time, and in 2016 his wildly successful second novel A Gentleman in Moscow was published and is currently being adapted by Paramount for television, starring Ewan McGregor as Count Alexander Rostov. His third and latest novel, The Lincoln Highway (2021), debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Collectively, his novels have sold more than 6 million copies and have been translated into over 30 languages. Towles lives in Manhattan with his wife, Maggie, and their two children.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Amor Towles is an unusual name. Where does it come from?

AMOR TOWLES

Amor is an old Puritan name. The Puritans had a tradition of naming their children after virtues instead of saints and so Amor or ‘love’ in Latin was a virtue turned into a name. Towles is an old family name; we’re British originally.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

You had a career in finance for 21 years. When did you very first put pen to paper with the intention of writing a novel?

AMOR TOWLES

I began writing fiction as a kid. Age 25 I moved to New York to be a fiction writer but while I was writing my first novel, living in the East Village, I felt a little lonely, a little claustrophobic and… broke. A friend of mine had started an investment firm and so I joined him as a way of earning my living and 21 years later we were still working side by side. I knew if I stopped writing fiction that I would end up very unhappy. Around my mid-30s, I wrote a novel over 7 years that I didn’t like, so I set that aside and ultimately wrote Rules of Civility. When it became a bestseller, that’s when I retired from the firm. As someone who’s been writing fiction since I was a kid, I’ve had ideas for stories my whole life.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

What’s your process?

AMOR TOWLES

When an idea comes to me, it often comes in the form of a sentence, a notion or a conceit. In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow I was still working at the firm and I would spend a week every year in Geneva meeting with clients. One year when I arrived at the hotel, I recognized one of the guys in the lobby from the year before. And it was funny because it gave the impression that the guy had never left. I thought to myself, ‘oh, the guy lives here’. I rode the elevator back to my room, took out a piece of paper and started writing immediately. I thought: the hotel could be in Russia and it could open at the beginning of the Bolshevik era. The protagonist could be an aristocrat, sentenced to house arrest in one of the fancy hotels across from the Kremlin and Red Square and the story could span the entire, Soviet-Stalin era. All of that process took a matter of minutes. And then I started to build on the idea. Then, over the course of a period of years I would imagine the story in every detail: all the events, the settings, the people, their backgrounds, the tone of it, all the little events, details, and objects. And while I did that, I filled some notebooks by hand. And this was long before the writing process.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Does your subconscious ever take over, or is it all structured?

AMOR TOWLES

While I am very much an outliner there’s a counterintuitive aspect of why I am an outlier: when I am writing, what I’m very interested in ensuring is that the part of me that is driving the process is the right side of the brain, the imaginative side. I like to think of the sort of symphonic qualities the novel can have: I want the language that I’m using to be filled with as much poetic inspiration as possible. It may mean that images present themselves for reasons I’m not expecting, even word choices. I have found that careful outlining frees up my brain to do that.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Regarding this balance between research and realization, can you tell us about moments of discovery when writing?

AMOR TOWLES

My third novel The Lincoln Highway was originally entitled Unfinished Business. It’s set in the 1950s Midwest and my 18-year-old hero, Emmett, just out of a juvenile work farm, has the intention of collecting his little brother Billy, leaving Nebraska for good and going west to California to find their mother. In all of my notes, I referred to the route they took as ‘Road X’. After several drafts, I opened up a map of the United States, peered at the middle of Nebraska, trying to figure out which exact road they would have taken to California when I discovered Route 30. The map says: ‘formerly known as the Lincoln Highway’ but I’d never heard of it; it doesn’t come up in American popular culture but it was the first highway to cross the United States. It was created by an entrepreneur in 1915 named Carl Fisher who raised the money and built it himself. It begins in Times Square in New York City where you’d have to take a barge across the Hudson River (this is before the tunnels) and the road went across the entire country to San Francisco.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

All three of your novels have an explicitly strong journey theme, both literally and metaphysically. Why do you think the journey story is so deeply embedded in the Western imagination and storytelling?

AMOR TOWLES

If you look at the history of Western narrative, the journey story is really one of the earliest and most important in the canon of Western narrative starting with Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, moving forward, if we look at the early stages of English literature, to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and then the Spanish Don Quixote. When we get to the United States and the 20th century, you have key narratives such as The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

I think that storytellers instinctively understood that the physical journey was the very simple metaphor for what they were trying to tell at a deeper level: that almost all narrative ultimately is about the transformation of an individual or individuals facing obstacles and to overcome those obstacles, they have to make decisions and that those decisions have moral implications. The metaphor of the journey or the road is the perfect metaphor for the transformation of individuals over the course of time as they encounter events.

My second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, is about the transformation of an individual going through experiences while being stuck in a building and in my third, The Lincoln Highway, you have the same notion but it’s spread out over a space—a physical road. Even where there’s an explicitly physical journey, it’s always the internal journey which matters more.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

You’ve talked about writing historical fiction and how some things are researched and others are inventions. Please share the vignette about the wine bottles in A Gentleman in Moscow.

AMOR TOWLES

I’m not a research-driven writer, so I don’t really do much research in my work but I’m usually drawing on knowledge that I have. The scene in A Gentleman in Moscow with the wine is a good example. The Hotel Metropol is a real hotel and had a real wine cellar and a very famous restaurant that did high cuisine, serving both the famous and the leaders of the party throughout the Soviet era. The Count and the Maître d’ go down into the wine cellar to discover that all of the wine labels have been removed from the bottles.

The Count and the Maître d’ go down into the wine cellar to discover that all of the wine labels have been removed from the bottles. An official has insisted that they all be removed because labels and wine hierarchy are classist concepts. So, to punish that sensibility, they remove the wine labels, price all the bottles the same and differentiate solely between red and white. This breaks the Count’s heart. The wine labels being removed was an invention. However, it’s true that many of the leaders of the Soviet party lived in great apartments and mansions and had a vast array of antiques seized from the nobility. To square this with their communist conscience, all these items were declared to ‘belong to the people’ and were labelled with a brass plaque and serial number that tallied with a large book. So, they would have all these fancy things but declare ‘I own nothing’.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

There’s a wonderful moment in A Gentleman in Moscow where the actress Anna Urbanova throws her clothes out of the window. That is, I believe, based on a real-life moment.

AMOR TOWLES

My characters are all inventions but every now and then something from my life will sneak into my work. The Count meets an actress, Anna, who he has fallen for. She’s at the height of her fame, she’s a bit of a diva. Anna brings him back to her room, seduces him and then dismisses him. As he’s leaving he notices that her beautiful dress she was wearing is on the floor, so he hangs it up.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

I believe, Amor, it’s a blouse. Not sure if you’ve read the novel, but it’s a blouse.

AMOR TOWLES

Right. Her blouse. He picks it up and it drives her crazy. So to make her point she starts leaving all of her clothes on the floor every day. Her maid becomes furious and tells her she’s acting like a child and that she needs to clear up her clothes. So she picks them all up and throws them out of her apartment window and onto the road below to show that she can do whatever she wants. But then, in the middle of the night, embarrassed, Anna goes out and gathers them up.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

And this was based on your parents?

AMOR TOWLES

Yes, a version of this happened between my parents when they were first married. My mother started dropping all her clothes on the floor and my father began picking it up in the hope that that would convince her to do it herself. But instead, she just kept dumping more and more stuff on the floor. And so eventually, he threw her clothes out of the window. But here, the story has a different ending because when my father threw her clothes out of the window, he went to bed assuming that my mother would be stirred into picking them up. But instead, she climbed into bed and fell right asleep. So then, in the middle of the night, my father went out and he picked it all up and brought it back in again. You can tell who was in charge of that marriage. But generally speaking I don’t write about friends. I don’t write about my personal life.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

I think you said you’ve been married for more than 20 years so clearly it’s working for you.

AMOR TOWLES

[Smiles]

CINEMA

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Let’s talk about the influence of cinema on your novels.

AMOR TOWLES

Well, all artists are influenced by all kinds of art forms and have been for thousands of years.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Sure, writers have always been influenced by sculptures or paintings; all kinds of visual media. Ekphrasis is as old as storytelling. But cinema explicitly impacts all three of your novels, like Casablanca in A Gentleman in Moscow.

AMOR TOWLES

I love that you mentioned ekphrasis. True, the moving image is the art form that’s arguably had the greatest impact on the modern era and popular imagination. And it’s very closely tied to the written narrative, in a way that sculpture is less so, but with film, we can really understand it. Like many novelists, I carry with me the paintings I’ve seen, the symphonies I’ve heard, the jazz music, the rock and roll, the books that I’ve read from different eras and of course, film. I am a lover of classical film without question.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

The parallels between Rick’s Café in Casablanca and the Metropol Hotel in A Gentleman in Moscow run deep.

AMOR TOWLES

That’s exactly right because in the centre of Casablanca, which is in a time of war, is a cafe, Rick’s Cafe, run by Humphrey Bogart, where everybody gathers. And for a moment, despite the fact that the second World War is unfolding around them and they’re in terrible distress as individuals, people would go there, listen to music, have a drink and something to eat, have a gamble and a romance.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

A limbo land, like the Metropol hotel.

AMOR TOWLES

Exactly. Casablanca becomes a very important image, particularly in the latter half of the novel. In my novel, the Count teaches a Soviet official all about the West through cinema and I chose film noir as I thought that the Soviet mind would think film noir gives a surprisingly dark view of capitalist free society. During the war, Morocco was a French-controlled entity, but it was not fully under the control of the Nazis yet so there were still a lot of foreigners coming through Morocco who were fleeing Europe and suddenly it was an enormous gathering place of refugees from the lowest to the highest.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Which movies are alluded to in The Lincoln Highway?

AMOR TOWLES

Something uncanny happened when writing The Lincoln Highway. There’s a significant moment in the book when Emmett takes a beating. Another young man, Duchess, reflects that Emmett reminds him of Alan Ladd in Shane, Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity and Lee Marvin in The Wild One. But then I thought I might have to scrap the references if the movies were released later than 1954 when the book is set. But weirdly, all three films came out in 1953. So Emmett’s willingness to take a beating could have been directly influenced by seeing a character like Shane, the cowboy hero, or Marlon Brando in The Wild One or Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. These films must be saying something about the American psyche at that time.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Can you tell us about the highly anticipated TV adaptation of A Gentleman in Moscow?

AMOR TOWLES

Yes, A Gentleman in Moscow is being made into an 8-hour mini-series by ParamountIt stars Ewan McGregor as the Count, which I couldn’t be happier with; he’s just who I would’ve wanted to play the role. I came back from set at the end of July, 10 days away from the end of shooting. But of course, the strikes will slow things down. All being well, it’ll premiere next spring. It’s being filmed in Bolton, Manchester.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

How have you filmed the Hotel Metropol?

AMOR TOWLES

Much of the story takes place in basically 6 or 7 rooms, and so the team has built the hotel, in essence, in a studio: the dining room, the Count’s quarters, the fancy rooms, suites in the hotel, the lobby; they’ve all been built in a studio and are amazing looking.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

What about the exteriors?

AMOR TOWLES

Some of that is built. The original thought process was that maybe we’d go to Russia for 5 days and shoot exteriors. But you can’t do that today because of the war in Ukraine. But there are ways around it like using CGI. Trust me, you will think you are in Russia. There’s no question about that.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Did you enjoy visiting the set?

AMOR TOWLES

The writing of novels is a very solitary pursuit and I don’t share my work until I finish writing a book, for instance. I don’t even share it with my wife, and it takes me a couple of years. So you’re kind of operating alone for much of that time and thinking things through yourself. Whereas a film is a hugely collaborative environment and it is so satisfying to visit the studios and see how all the various different craftspeople bring together their talent and their imagination, their skill sets to bring the story to life.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

As an executive producer, did you watch audition tapes or have any say in casting?

AMOR TOWLES

As a writer, if you’re lucky, the studio will give you veto power over certain things. I was very involved in hiring the director, the showrunner-writer and the star. The mindset of the studios is that if you weigh in on those key players, then you’ll be comfortable stepping back and letting them do their job. Ben Vanstone is the showrunner and head writer, and he’s terrific.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

In your books, you use these Towlesian (did I just coin that?) dashes instead of quotation marks, which you have said, make the dialogue sharper. They very much remind me of the immediacy and the punch of screenplay dialogue. Is there a screenplay in you?

AMOR TOWLES

Towlesian… no-one has used that before. I’ve done some work in the screenplay arena, but at the end of the day, I love writing novels, and I think that’s the place where the majority of my creative energy should go. It’s my calling more than film. Also, as I kind of implied a moment ago, I’m not a very collaborative person. I like not being a collaborative person. If you say, ‘I want to write a screenplay,’ you’re in the collaborative game, and everybody’s going to be able to tell you how you should change your screenplay, and I think that would kill me.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Will Rules of Civility be adapted for the screen?

AMOR TOWLES

Rules of Civility is very far along. The showrunner is in place, the pilot and series arc have been written, and there’s an actress attached.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Top 3 novels?

AMOR TOWLES

Easy. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. They’re very different but what they have in common is that they are very ambitious in terms of scope and despite their enormous intricacy, they’re very cohesive, unique and each doing things in storytelling that were unusual compared to their peers or to the novels that came before them. They’re all incredibly beautiful and humane. And then at the sentence level: they’re all perfect.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

If I’d broadened the list to 5 would F. Scott Fitzgerald have made it onto that list?

AMOR TOWLES

No. I love Fitzgerald and I love Gatsby, and I wrote the introduction for the 100th-anniversary edition of Tender is the Night… let’s say top 10.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Favorite films?

AMOR TOWLES

The Third Man really is perfect. Casablanca. The Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. I love The Man With No Name trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. In the modern era, the Coen brothers are probably my favorite filmmakers. I think Miller’s Crossing is, again, a perfect movie.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

What’s next?

AMOR TOWLES

I’m working on a new novel that’ll hopefully come out by the end of 2025. And in May next year, I have a collection of short stories coming out called Table for Two. And I think this will interest you, it’ll include a novella Eve and Hollywood. In my novel Rules of Civility, the character Eve is Katey’s best friend and is kind of a troublemaker. She’s very spunky, she’s hilarious, I think. And in the course of that novel, she disappears. She heads out to Hollywood without sort of telling you where she’s going, and so I wrote a series of short stories that followed her to Hollywood circa 1938. There’s crime in it, there’s blackmail, murder and Hollywood actresses.

A RABBIT’S FOOT

Just the cocktail we like at A Rabbit’s Foot